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Hvala IlijaPhotography Peter Butterworth

The upcoming designer who wants to put Vienna on fashion’s map

Hvala Ilija takes inspiration from his Austrian birthplace and Bosnian heritage to create ‘redefined sportswear’

When it comes to cities with an overload of upcoming fashion designers, Vienna probably doesn’t immediately come to mind – especially against the likes of fashion capitals London and Paris.

One name looking to change that, though, is Hvala Ilija. After his parents fled Bosnia in the mid-90s, the designer was born in the Austrian city he still calls his home, and he weaves the country’s influences – as well as his Bosnian heritage – throughout his streetwear-inflected collections.

Describing his work as “refined sportswear”, Ilija often takes inspiration from the men he grew up around – taking their style as a starting point and upgrading them in an elegant, more refined way. This takes the form of sheer shirts that look like they could be worn by a jockey, football scarves branded with the designer’s name, and garments bearing bold racecar and driving motifs. Elsewhere, he splices together contrasting Oktoberfest tees, sometimes combining three into one mega t-shirt, as part of his version of the 50/50 trend.

Unfazed by the fact he doesn’t come from a city synonymous with upcoming fashion talent, Ilija’s biggest obstacle is a lack of money – something he talks about frankly. “It’s very tough to build a label, even if you talk people into working with you. They might understand your vision but if you can’t pay them, the motivation won’t be there,” he explains. He still has a positive outlook about growing the label in the future, though: “It’s the only thing I’m really good at so, of course, it brings me joy,” he says.

Here, we speak to Ilija about his latest collection, his influences, and the struggles young designers face both in Vienna and around the world.

Where did your interest in fashion come from?

Hvala Ilija: I’ve never really thought about where my interest in fashion comes from, but I think that maybe it has a lot to do with music videos. The first video I remember seeing was Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It”. The feeling I had while I was watching these videos, there was a theme and the looks and styling fit into the song’s mood. I figured out later that you actually can communicate through your garments and that’s when I think I got really interested in fashion, and started doing some research into it.

What are attitudes towards fashion like in Austria?

Hvala Ilija: Where I grew up, people don’t really think about fashion outside of two categories: ‘Is it pretty or is it ugly?’ ‘Can I wear it or not?’ ‘Will people stare at me or not?’ When I was studying, though, it was very motivating to hear people appreciating my thoughts and drawings, so that’s when I was like ‘okay I guess there’s something to it’.

How would you describe the aesthetic of your label?

Hvala Ilija: From the beginning, I knew I was interested in menswear because there were so many things you could experiment with. I was automatically drawn to the guys I grew up around and I wanted it to feel genuine; I didn’t want to force myself into something I didn’t know anything about. I took basic sportswear elements and thought about personally what I’d want to see on a man that’s different to what I see now.

“I was automatically drawn to the guys I grew up around and I wanted it to feel genuine; I didn’t want to force myself into something I didn’t know anything about” – Hvala Ilija 

What is your starting point for designing a collection?

Hvala Ilija: It’s very different from one collection to the next, but I’m always taking pictures for inspiration. I take pictures of strangers and save texts or songs or videos – some of them stick with you and others don’t. It happened to me recently when an old professor asked me to do some work for him. I saw all his stuff lying around on his desk and it was like a punch in the face creatively.

After I have the inspiration, I start making the prototypes and then I get some of my friends to help me create the final looks. I’m technically skilled, but because I want to sell things, I’d rather have a person who’s on my side look at them and tell me what’s right and wrong.

Tell us about your latest collection…

Hvala Ilija: I was in Bosnia going through some old pictures of my mum and I found these pictures of my uncle from his teenage years. He was visiting Vienna in his 20s and his only purpose was to come and make money and send it back to his family in Bosnia. He came to Vienna to work, but stayed to party and he used to wear an adidas tracksuit, Levi’s jacket, and some Nike shoes. The collection is all about being young and having a desire to be somewhere else enjoying life.

Can you tell us about the lookbook images?

Hvala Ilija: We shot the pictures for the collection in Vienna, in a well-known place where all the buses from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria come to pick people up or drop them off. That’s the same route my uncle used to take so I wanted to place it there. I also shot in the Austrian Cultural Forum in London, but that was more of an aesthetic decision.

What are you some of the difficulties you’ve faced as an upcoming designer?

Hvala Ilija: I think that one of the biggest problems for young designers is money. Talking to my peers, it’s always the same: ‘I wish I had this fabric but one metre costs way too much’, ‘I wish I had this machine but it costs this much’, ‘I wish I had this model but models cost so much much.’ The discipline is there, the skills are there, the vision is there, but the money is not.

Internships are also really important for young designers, because that’s how you get to know people in your field, but everyone wants you to work for free. If you’re living in Paris, that’s not feasible. To move to Paris or to London, for example, to do an internship, I could never. I think I would end up on the streets working in London for an internship.

What are some of the difficulties of putting Vienna on the fashion map?

Hvala Ilija: Everything is bound to money so that’s the main problem in Vienna. You don’t really have a lot of competition, there are only two or three main competitions where you are able to win money, and then you’re not allowed to go into the production field with the winnings. So that’s kind of a problem, and I feel like I have to limit myself. The good thing about it is that you’ve got to figure out a way to work with what you’ve got and still make people feel something.

What are your plans for the future?

Hvala Ilija: I’m going to be honest, if money is going to continue being an issue, I’m going to look into different projects. The other thing I’m interested in about fashion is the trend aspect and the forecasting field. That’s what I like about fashion, once you’re in and you have certain skills, you can really dive into different fields. I’m interested in a lot when it comes to fashion because I love the whole thing and everything that comes with it.